Game: Bane of the Salt Fen Lich
Publisher: Heathen Oracle
Review Dated: 6th, December 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
It’s big. It’s probably too big. At a scary weight of 15,000KB+ this initial offering from Heathen Oracle should be easy to write off as “gone wrong”. It’s not quite that simple though. It would take one hell of a range of added extra to convince me that a 64-paged PDF product hadn’t been broken or corrupted to reach the 15,000KB level but the Bane of the Salt Fen Lich pretty much does it. There are lots of pictures in the download, lots of high quality pictures in fact but with likes of V Shane on the artwork this isn’t all that surprising. It might just also be the case that these pictures are included at a too high resolution and are weighing down the product as a result. That’s a cautionary note PDF RPG companies learn quickly. An even more important lesson is the inclusion of through and detailed bookmarks. My copy of Azieran: Bane of the Salt Fen Lich has none. This is not a good start. It’s a fall at the first hurdle but it’s worth noting that sometimes, just sometimes, review copies are a slightly different version from those that appear in the online stores and its possible your downloaded copy of the adventure will have them.
You might imagine my initial reaction; my modem left panting for breath, no easy way to navigate the product and then the discovery that supplement’s a pre-written adventure. I’m no great fan of pre-written adventures. As I started to scroll down I was wondering whether I was going to have to find a few positive and constructive things to say about the download. The quality of writing was one. Crisp and clear sentences and none of the rambling that the background to fantasy stories the author knows too-well can become. Christopher Heath has the credit for that one and he’s someone fans of Kenzer & Co will recognise. The text size is large. The OGL text near the end of the download takes up three pages and I think that’s a record. Nevertheless, if you’re prone to actually reading out the DM boxes of text to read to your players then you’d probably prefer large text that you don’t trip up over or need to squint at in the nicely atmospheric light you’ve got going for your RP session. The large text also meant I noticed the suggestion to “show player’s aid 2” at the bottom of the page before catching up to the point in the page text where you might want to use the first aid. The next page has a little graphic beside a number 2. The image was too small for a player’s aid but it’s just a thumbnail of the real handout from the back of the product.
At this point I shall remind you that reviews of adventures are likely to contain spoilers. As it happens the Bane of the Salt Fen Lich is a game that you might want to run, play or at the very least not to spoil. This particular adventure didn’t so much win me over as it had me raising the bar for other PDF offerings to try and live up to.
There are twelve of these numbered player’s aids. The assumption is that you will be printing this adventure out (I can’t imagine many GMs run games straight from PDF on their laptop). If you’re printing the adventure out when you’ll be able to hold up and pass around player handouts. You can say “and the strange door way looks like this…” and show the players the picture. That’ll stop them in their tracks. That’ll make them think. I’ll give you five to one odds that players will take at least three times to have their characters walk through a doorway you’ve shown them a picture of compared to any other un-illustrated doorway in the adventure. Heh. Okay. So that’s as much a con as it is a pro but there’s not just illustrations of spooky portals to be shown to your players. Even if you’re not going to use this adventure for anything else I encourage DMs to print out the pictures of a suspicious looking bridge, doorway, choice of tunnels, etc and show them to players when there’s nothing untoward going on whatsoever.
Right. So you’re going to be printing off the Bane of the Salt Fen Lich. The presence of white boxes left blank for your own notes is a nice little addition then. The note boxes and tick boxes beside certain paragraphs of text are surprisingly simple innovation. At this point the Bane of the Salt Fen Lich is a high-fantasy adventure for five to eight 5th to 7th level characters that clawed its way above many of its rivals and stands out just a little. It’s about this point, just shy of 30 pages into the 64-paged document that the adventure finishes. Oh. It’s always nice to see an appendix of new magic items. When the adventure concludes (short but tough) the appearance of such an appendix is welcome. There are some specific and special items that the players might hear about or find during the adventure and they’re detailed here. There are some stats and game mechanics from the scenario that could have been fleshed out rather more and so I was expecting to see a second appendix with them in. I did find it and I wasn’t surprised. The third appendix did surprise me though; it’s a fully pre-generated company. There are more than just character sheets, there’s an illustration for every member of the group. Cool! After all, if doorways and suspicious bridges have their own pictures then I want one for my character too. It gets better yet though. If you flick straight to the very end of the PDF, after even the OGL license, then you’ll find a collection of pages with text, upside down illustrations of the pre-generated company and the sort of dashed line that encourages us to fold paper along it. I think this is a rather sly move for a PDF. If you’re going to print it off then why not take full advantage of the fact that you can print it off whenever you want and as often as you want. The pictures of characters at the very end of the download are designed to cut out and folded up. You can sit behind a triangle of paper that has a little character summary on your side and an illustration of your character on the other.
I skipped ahead from the pre-generated party appendix to get to the end of the document and the character illustrations though. There are a lot of pages between appendix three and these fold-up illustrations. The next appendix offers stats for new monsters. I think this appendix could have been merged with the appendix two and its collection of NPC stats even though they’re not quite the same thing. The Bane of the Salt Fen Lich introduces the Archlich. Sounds scary? It’s only a diminutive undead. Oh. It’s a Challenge Rating 32 undead. Sound scary now? The next appendix offers a summary of the nearby village. The next appendix is a glossary of terms. The next appendix is a set of tables and rules for random encounters. See what I meant about the PDF being especially packed with stuff? The next appendix presents the rules for epic level conversion!
There’s more too! There’s a large number of quality maps. One set of maps is in colour; they look pretty but present more printing problems than black and white maps do.
One of the reasons I don’t count myself among the ranks of pre-written scenario fans is that I rarely find anything new in them. I found plenty of extra touches that I hadn’t seen before in this product. Nothing so new as to wow me in the adventure itself (although it’s sold and safe) but the download as a single purchased entity is impressive. Heathen Oracle seems to be doing well in their exploration of modern media for the hobby. If you visit the website then you’ll be able to download a free MP3 “soundscape”. I like that direction too; if I’m already downloading graphics and text to enhance my roleplaying sessions then it seems only natural to visit favourite RPG publishers for music too.
What a turn around! I went from being worried about the quality of the Bane of the Salt Fen Lich to having it add an extra level of achievement for other PDFs to live up to. A product of this size does need bookmarks, scrolling graphics is slower than scrolling text and so not being able to jump directly to the page you want is noticeable. Heathen Oracle should add bookmarks to their PDFs. Should Heathen Oracle do something about the large size of the product? Um. That’s not so easy. More of us have fast Internet connections these days (but not me!) and so size becomes less important. I don’t like waiting for a download but I’m certainly prepared to wait that bit longer if Heathen Oracle must loose some of their innovations before the size of the file can come down.